Should Disciples Carry a Staff?

Joseph Francis Alward
September 5, 1999

This essay illustrates perfectly a recurring errantist
theme: two or more Bible writers often described
the same event in conflicting ways. In this
example, Mark says that Jesus told his disciples
they could take "nothing" with them on their
journey except a staff and sandals and,
presumably, a coat.  Matthew, however,
contradicts Mark by saying that Jesus told his
disciples they could not take a staff and sandals.

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Mark's Story

And he called unto him the twelve...And commanded them that they should take nothing for their journey, save a staff only; no scrip, no bread, no money in their purse: But be shod with sandals; and not put on two coats [evidently, one coat was allowed, but not two].   (Mark 6:7-10)

Note that Mark's Jesus is telling his disciples they can take a staff, but no money.  After you read Matthew's story, below, you will see that apologists try to argue that Matthew is telling us that Jesus also told his disciples that they couldn't go home to get anything (implying that they could take with them whatever they had right then).  This will contradict Mark, whose Jesus tells the disciples that they cannot take money with them, period.

Matthew's Story

These twelve Jesus sent forth, and commanded them, provide [nothing at all, not even a staff] neither gold, nor silver, nor brass in your purses, Nor scrip for your journey, neither two coats, neither shoes, nor yet staves [1] (Matthew 10:1-11)

Thus, the disciples could only take with them the (one) coat on their back.  

Luke's Story

And he said unto them, Take nothing for your journey, neither staves, nor scrip, neither bread, neither money; neither have two coats apiece.   (Luke 9:3)

Luke agrees with Matthew that the disciples were not supposed to take even one staff with them. Luke's Jesus lists several items they cannot take:  staves, scrip, bread, money, and coats, but Luke has Jesus making a distinction only for "coats":  they can take one coat but not two.  Now, if Luke's Jesus meant for the disciples to take one staff, but not two or more, he would have said "neither have two or more staves apiece".  He didn't say that, so we conclude that Luke, like Matthew, believed that the disciples should go forth without a staff, in contradiction to the story in Mark, where Jesus tells them to take a staff with them.

Attempted Harmonization

Apologists tell us that staves in Matthew, really means extra staves, and coats really means extra coats; the disciples, they say, could take one staff, and one coat, but they could not take extra staves, or extra coats.

But, what about money? It's included on the same list as staves, and coats, so to be consistent the apologists must also conclude that Matthew tells us that the disciples could take money, but not extra money, just as they can take a staff but not extra staves? However, this is a problem, too, because Mark says that the disciples can't take any money with them, period.  Mark doesn't refer to what extras they couldn't take; Mark only lists the things the disciples could take (a staff, sandals, and one coat), and the things they could not take: scrip, bread, money, a second coat. Since Mark lists money among the things the disciples could not take--whether it was money they had on them, or money they might go home to obtain, Mark directly contradicts what the apologists wrongly think is Matthew's implication that they could, indeed, take with them the money they had on them.

Thus, the apologists' apology fails.

The only reasonable conclusion to be reached here is that Mark and Matthew each agree that each disciple was to go forth humbly with only a coat on his back, and without money, food, or sandals. The one point of disagreement, however, is that Mark thought they could take a staff with them, and Matthew and Luke thought not. Personally, I think the intended message was that the disciples, empowered with the spirit and strength of Jesus son of God, would only take with them whatever would help preserve their modesty, and they would need nothing, not even a staff, because they were "worthy of their meat" (Matthew 10:10), which meant that God, through the people they met, would provide whatever they needed on their journeys, just as was true for the author of the 23rd Psalm, who walked fearlessly through the valley of death unprotected, because the Lord was his rod and staff.  This was the message Matthew wanted his readers to receive:  Jesus' disciples were just like the shepherd in the 23rd Psalm.  Thus, Matthew story is about showing faith in the power of the Lord.

[1] "staves" is plural of "staff".


Undedited comments from email posts to errancy forums follow:

February 15, 2003:


Was Jesus instructing the disciples to set out on their journey barefoot?


That's exactly what I think.  Just as Matthew expected his readers to think of the shepherd David in Psalms 23 who was guided and protected by God's "staff," and who by inference didn't need his own staff, Matthew also expect his readers to be reminded that David, too traveled barefoot. 

"But David continued up the Mount of Olives, weeping as he went; his head was covered and he was barefoot. All the people with him covered their heads too and were weeping as they went up. " (2 Samuel 15:30)


Thus, David was a shepherd who tended his flock, so Jesus' disciples would be told to "tend to the flock." 


David was guided and protected by God's "staff" in his journey through the valley of the shadow of death, so Jesus ordered that his disciples not take a staff with them on their evangelizing journey, for if their faith was strong enough, God would provide whatever protection and guidance they needed. 


David once walked barefoot, so what was good enough for David should be good enough for Jesus' disciples.  In addition, God was going to provide for their needs, anyway, so if they really needed sandals, God would see that they got them.


By the way,  David wasn't the only heroic figure of Old Testament times to travel barefoot.  The Lord ordered Isaiah to do it, too:


at that time the LORD spoke through Isaiah son of Amoz. He said to him, "Take off the sackcloth from your body and the sandals from your feet." And he did so, going around stripped and barefoot. Then the LORD said, "Just as my servant Isaiah has gone stripped and barefoot for three years, (Isaiah 20:2-3)


So, there is ample precedent for holy men to travel about without sandals.  David did it, and Isaiah did it, so it might seemed completely reasonable to Matthew that Jesus would order his disciples to travel barefoot, too.  And, without a staff.



When Matthew described Jesus' instruction to his disciples before they set out on their evangelizing journeys, he expected his readers to recall the faith of King David in the famous Psalm below. David evidently figuratively walked through the valley of the shadow of death under God's protection without a staff, for God was his staff:


The LORD is my shepherd, I shall not be in want…Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me. (Psalm 23:1-4)

And so it would have to be for Jesus' disciples: Matthew evidently believed that Jesus wanted his disciples to show their faith in God by letting God be their staff as they traveled through the cities of Israel. If Jesus had allowed his disciples to carry a staff, they would be showing the world that they didn't have as much faith in God's protection as King David did, and that just couldn't be. Thus, Matthew has Jesus explicitly tell his disciples, "Do not take a staff":


He called his twelve disciples to him…Go to the lost sheep of Israel…Do not take along any gold or silver or copper in your belts; take no bag for the journey, or extra tunic, or sandals or a staff; " (Matthew 10:1-11)

However, the author of Mark's gospel thought that Jesus told his disciples they could take a staff with them:


And he called unto him the twelve...And commanded them that they should take nothing for their journey, save a staff only. (Mark 6:7-10)

Thus, it appears that one or the other of these two writers is wrong. Matthew said Jesus said they could NOT take a staff, but Mark said they COULD take a staff. At most, only one of these authors can be correct, which means at least one of them is wrong and the Bible is in error.


In the case of David in Psalm 23, Matthew apparently imagined that God was using his staff to protect and guide David and his flock. The Psalm doesn't say that David did or did not carry a staff, but surely it was expected that the Psalm reader would know that David did not need one because the all-powerful God's staff was there to protect and guide him and his flock. The message of Psalms is that David relied on his faith that he would be protected and guided by God, and needed nothing else.

Matthew's believed that Jesus' message to his disciples was one of faith. His disciples would need to take on their evangelizing journeys nothing but faith in the power of God to protect and guide them, just like David. To make sure his readers understood this connection, Matthew invoked images of the Psalm's shepherd by implying that the disciples are like shepherds who are to tend to "the lost sheep." Thus, the disciples are shepherds tending "sheep," just like David was.

Furthermore, just like David, who evidently needed no staff for guidance and protection, Jesus' disciples needed no staff for guidance and protection, because God's all-powerful staff would be there for them, if they had faith. Thus, Matthew believed that Jesus must have told his disciples not to carry a staff. Here is what Matthew said Jesus said:


He called his twelve disciples to him…Go to the LOST SHEEP of Israel…Do not take along any gold or silver or copper in your belts; take no bag for the journey, or extra tunic, or sandals OR A STAFF; " (Matthew 10:1-11)

I think the shepherding and staff motive here is clear enough to remind most readers of the shepherd David and his being guided and protected by God's staff that Matthew surely would have expected his readers to notice it.

Given that various translations have Jesus either saying, "take no staff," or, "take no staves," the conclusion seems almost inescapable: Jesus, according to Matthew, did not want his disciples to take a staff with them. In a subsequent post, Rebecca, I will address Jason's claim that "take no staves" means that the disciples are not to take more than one staff.


Did "nor staves" mean, "not two staves"?


Put yourself in the place of the disciples, xxxx. Would you really have thought that Jesus was telling you that you could not take two staffs, but that one was all right? Wouldn't you have thought,

"Well, he said we couldn't take TWO coats, so that means we can take one coat. If he had meant that we could take one staff, too, he would have said, we couldn't take TWO staffs. Instead, he said we couldn't take staffs, period, so that means we cannot even take one staff."

Isn't that what you would have thought? If so, then don't you think that if Matthew really wanted his readers to know that Jesus allowed his disciples to carry a staff, he would have made sure he had Jesus say, "don't carry TWO staffs," instead of having him say, "do not carry staffs"? Matthew would have known that generations of readers, reading only his gospel, would have believed that the disciples couldn't carry even one staff, wouldn't he? And knowing that, if he really believed that the disciples COULD carry a staff, he would have had Jesus say, "do not carry TWO staffs," just as he did when he said, "do not carry TWO coats." How could Matthew have been so careless, if your interpretation is correct?

What if your pastor, addressing church members who were about to travel the streets knocking on doors, said, "Take no bibles." Wouldn't you take this to mean that nobody was to take a bible, rather than nobody was to have TWO bibles"? If you would believe that you were not to take even one bible, then wouldn't the disciples in Matthew's narrative also have believed that they were not to take even one staff?


In the II-Errancy forum, one correspondent observed a problem with the sandals. If you want to argue that "no staffs" really means "not more than one staff," then by logical extension you would have to argue that "no sandals" really means "not more than one sandal." That's silly, but no less silly than the notion that to Jesus' "no staffs" meant "one staff."

Another problem is that Matthew's Jesus knew how to say, "not an extra tunic," so why didn't he say, "no extra staff," if that's what he really meant?

Finally, who ever heard of anyone carrying TWO walking sticks? One in each hand? Do you really believe that carrying two walking sticks was such a common practice in those days that the son of God would bother to warn his disciples not to carry two walking sticks?